What do you get when you place nuts and bolts on the keys of an organ (apart from a smack on the wrist from the organist)?

If you wander into Hobart’s grandiose Town Hall this January you may well find me, red-eyed and dazed, at the pipe organ. By then I will have been playing since the previous midnight and will likely have hours still to go. I’ll be attempting one of the longest single performances in classical music – a 24-hour composition on pipe organ for MONA FOMA.

Composer Julian Day, photo © Yvonna Chakra

Classical works have grown longer in recent decades and, naturally, the trend was kick-started by the minimalists. La Monte Young’s five-hour solo The Well-Tuned Piano from 1964 was inspired by his classmate Dennis Johnson’s similarly proportioned piano epic November of five years earlier. Morton Feldman added his six-hour String Quartet No 2 in 1984 – you may have heard it recently at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music. Feldman’s mate John Cage took up the challenge a few years later with Organ²/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) which, like my piece, is for pipe organ, and while technically of any length is currently unfolding as a 639-year installation in a German church. Compared to that, sitting through Max Richter’s eight-hour Sleep is a breeze, although when he recently performed it at the Sydney Opera House his listeners were kindly offered beds.

Like Richter, I welcome you to sleep during my performance but equally I invite you to wander through the emptied neo-Renaissance building. The Weight Of Air unfolds as a series of overlapping chords and as you move you’ll hear harmonies shimmer and bounce around you. I’m interested in shifting your focus from what happens at the organ to what happens next. The pipe organ is an incredible machine in which sounds surge into the air and take on their own life once released from the pipes. The surrounding airspace is where you experience the work and my intention is to sculpt this air as a material, by placing heavy weights on the keys, hence the title.

An Infinity Room, photo © Emily Sandrussi

My love affair with the organ began in 2003 when I created an evening-length project Heavy Metal for Melbourne Town Hall’s incredible grand pipe organ. The instrument with its looming wooden façade is seriously arresting and its nearly 10,000 pipes can pump out 90,000 cubic feet of air every minute. I commissioned my composers’ collective COMPOST to write pieces that extended the possibilities of the instrument. My work instructed two organists to slowly play every note on the instrument in sequence, starting with a single C and building to a massive wall of sound. As the players methodically depressed each note, the sprawling audience sat on beanbags, lay on the floor or wandered throughout the space.

Since then I have presented a modified version of this idea using multiple portable synthesisers. I call this project An Infinity Room whose acronym, you’ll note, spells ‘AIR’. I have played my slow-build compositions in many different spaces around the world, from dark Berlin clubs to London’s airy Whitechapel Gallery. For each performance I set out at least two identical keyboards, typically cheap 1980s numbers, and systematically place heavy bolts on the keys according to strict geometric patterns. You’d be surprised at how simple sequences can yield unexpected results as the sounds make their way through a given space. I see this project as a way to observe the promiscuous flux of sound as it explores the richness of its environment. 

At MONA FOMA you’ll hear two brand new pieces on two different organs. The first is a relatively brisk one-hour work for the quirky wooden chamber organ at the Museum of Old and New Art. If you’re a 90s tragic you’ll recognise the title, Box Shaped Heart, as a nod to the classic Nirvana song. More specifically it describes a way of viewing the instrument as a rectangular central chamber within the overall body of the gallery whose rich tones beat through the building’s arteries. This intimate piece focuses on the organ as an object whereas The Weight of Air is more about modulating the density of the Hobart Town Hall airspace. As such, the two works act as interconnected siblings that effectively bookend the festival. Whether you bring sleeping pills or coffee is your call.

Box Shaped Heart is at Hobart’s MONA on January 20, The Weight of Air is on January 21

Box Shaped Heart

The Weight of Air